Foto by Sasha © V&A Images
Serge Lifar and Alexandra Danilova-in Appolon Musagete in 1928, showing the first version of costumes designed by Coco Chanel. Foto by Sasha-mostrando-la-primera-version-de-vestidos-disenados-por-coco
In 1909, a troupe of Russian dancers embarked on a staggering 20-year tour of Europe that was to transform dance from something that filled in time during opera intervals, into a multidisciplinary, multisensory experience. Despite the turbulent backdrop of the First World War and the 1917 Russian Revolution, which effectively exiled the company, the Ballets Russes shocked even the most enlightened of European audiences.
An exhibition now running at CaixaForum captures the spirit of the most successful, and financially disastrous dance troupe in history. Costumes, drawings and film clips, plus a series of talks and live concerts, piece together the story of the Ballets Russes, revealing that while performances were the product of a mishmash of creative imaginations, including those of designer Leon Bakst, artist Henri Matisse and composers Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, the driving force behind the troupe was the enigmatic, charismatic and autocratic entrepreneur Sergei Diaghilev—the Steve Jobs of dance.
Diaghilev knew how to play an audience. Many performances were traditional or operatic (Prince Igor, 1909), some were inspired by Russian folk stories (Petrushka, 1911) then more radical works were dropped in. Le sacre du printemps (1913) was set to a capricious musical score by Igor Stravinsky; ballerinas moved on permanent pointe or pigeon toed. In the notorious L’après-midi d’un faune (1912), the climatic scene showed a young buck finding ‘personal satisfaction’ with a lady nymph’s scarf. Both were choreographed, and the latter performed, by Vaslav Nijinsky, a dancer with thighs like tree trunks who soared through the air as if held there on strings.
Placing the male dancer centre-stage was one of many innovations of the troupe. Another was the outfits, in Jean Cocteau’s Parade (1917), dancers clunked about a set designed by Pablo Picasso, while Coco Chanel created ‘swimsuits’ for Le Tren Bleu (1924). She was one of the powerful society women who bailed out the Ballets Russes, always on the brink of bankruptcy. Choreographer Marie Rambert was another, called in on the 1912-1914 tour to convince distraught dancers to perform.
When it ended, in 1929, it was not with the Wall Street Crash but with the sudden death of its patron. Without Diaghilev the company fell apart, but all the great innovators of dance, from Pina Bausch to Merce Cunningham, have been directly influenced by it, a lesson in creative enthusiasm over adversity.